Remembering Ignatius Sancho

Black Month History provides an opportunity to celebrate the lives of people who have contributed to life in modern Britain.

One such life is Ignatius Sancho, an exceptional character who lived on the Lewisham / Greenwich borders.

Born it is thought around 1729, on a slave ship going to the West Indies, Ignatius was soon orphaned and at an early age arrived in London where he was forced to work for three sisters in a house in Greenwich. During this period he was taken under the wing of Blackheath resident the Duke of Montagu, who encouraged him to self-educate with the gift of books. On the death of the Duke, Ignatius ran away from the house in Greenwich and became employed by the Duke’s widow working for the Montagu household for over 20 years. Ignatius used his position to continue reading and became an avid letter writer including writing to newspapers advocating for the end of the slave trade. He was able to vividly illustrate the trade's inhumanity to a broad audience, largely to people who had never read words written by a black person. He met many leading 18th century people from the world of arts and literature, his portrait was painted by Thomas Gainsborough, he acted on the London stage and Ignatius Sancho was particularly well known as a composer.

Ignatius Sancho married a West Indian woman, Anne Osborne. He became a devoted husband and father of seven children. In 1773 he opened a grocery shop in Westminster with a legacy from the Duchess. He became the first African prose writer published in England. As a financially independent householder he qualified to vote in the 1774 General Election, becoming the first person of African descent to vote in a British general election. He is also the first known person of African descent to have an obituary published in British newspapers.

He died in 1780 and was buried in St Margaret’s Westminster but there is no surviving memorial at the church. The Gainsborough portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

The qualification to vote in 1774 was limited to property-owning men. Now everybody over 18 can vote in the UK, Liberal Democrats want like to see the right to vote extended to sixteen and seventeen year olds and support many initiatives to encourage people of all ages and from all backgrounds to use their vote at elections.

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